How To Make Survival Lamps With Used Cooking Oil and Mason Jars

C. Davis
By C. Davis January 25, 2017 13:05

How To Make Survival Lamps With Used Cooking Oil and Mason Jars

Being prepared is all about having fallback options that will keep supplying you with necessities when normal methods fail. If law and order breaks down, you have the weapons and skills to defend your own home. Once the medication runs out you know which natural remedies to use. These fallbacks might not last forever, though, and depending on how long a crisis lasts – and how bad it is – you might need to find backups for the backups.

roman oil lampLet’s look at lighting. Say the power grid’s been down for years, you’re out of gasoline for the generator and the last box in the candle stockpile is nearly empty. How are you going to light your home at night? As usual, history gives us the answers. The ancient Romans lit their homes at night, but they didn’t have electricity. They did have candles, but they were expensive and smelly to use – beeswax was expensive in ancient Rome, so candles were made from rendered beef fat. Luckily there was a better solution.

Rome had a massive, sophisticated olive oil industry, with jars of oil from Italy and Spain shipped to every part of the Empire. A lot was used for cooking – but huge amounts were also used as lamp oil. Cleaner, cheaper and safer than candles, they were the leading source of light for centuries.

If you find yourself running out of lighting options, you can easily resurrect this ancient technology.

Certainly, you can buy oil lamps and bottles of expensive oil for them, but there’s no need to bother. You can get just as good results with a home-made lamp fueled by vegetable oil. In fact, vegetable oil, as a fuel, has some real advantages over lamp oil:

  • You can re-purpose used cooking oil, giving you a zero-cost fuel and helping with waste disposal.
  • Vegetable oil doesn’t give off toxic fumes as it burns. If you use olive oil, there isn’t even any odor.
  • In the long term, vegetable oil is a renewable fuel. You can grow canola or sunflowers and extract oil from them.

Making a lamp

An oil lamp is the easiest kind of light source to make – it’s much simpler to make than a candle, and will last a lot longer. In fact, oil lamps over 2,000 years old can still be used if you just add a new wick and fill them with oil. The basic design is also incredibly adaptable. It’s possible to make a working lamp out of a wide range of materials, including things that would otherwise go in the trash.

There are only two basic components to an oil lamp:

  • A container to hold the oil
  • A wick to draw oil up to where it can be burned

That’s really it. You’ll probably have to improvise a wick holder as well, unless you’re using a purpose-designed lamp. Traditional oil lamps were usually made of metal or clay, and they had a wick holder built in. Often the lamp would look like a small, flattened teapot, with a handle at one end and a spout at the other – the wick would be placed in the spout. If you’re good at pottery, it’s very easy to make a replica of an old oil lamp. Otherwise you’ll need to improvise – but an improvised lamp will work just as well.

Finding a container

The first thing you need to do is get a suitable container to convert into a lamp. There’s a whole list of options here. A glass jar can make a good lamp, especially for outdoor use. Any small clay, metal or earthenware bowl can be turned into a lamp. A metal tin like the ones some brands of skin cream come in is also ideal.

Unless you’re using a jar, it’s best to pick a shallow container that’s wider than it is deep. There are two reasons for this. One is that the level of oil won’t fall as rapidly. The other is that it’s safer, because it’s more difficult to knock over and spill. Having said that, although they have a naked flame oil lamps are actually pretty safe. If one does get knocked over the spilled oil will usually put the wick out. It’s still not a good idea to leave them unsupervised, especially if there are children around, but they’re much safer than candles.the OIL lamp

Making a wick

For a wick, you need a piece of twine or cord made from natural fibers. Don’t use synthetic fiber – it will melt and possibly burn, releasing toxic fumes. Cotton is ideal, but flax, nettle and other natural materials will work too. Look for cord with a fairly smooth surface; if you use a rough or hairy cord it’s likely to char badly. You might also be able to use silica cord as a wick; this is very heat-resistant, but it might not wick all kinds of oil very well.

You want a fairly thick cord for your wick – just under a quarter inch is perfect. If all you have is thinner twine, twist it. Take a couple of feet of twine, tie one end to something and twist the other end until it’s tensioned and becoming rigid. Then, keeping some tension on it so it doesn’t knot up, bring the ends together and let go the middle. As it unwinds it will twist around itself, forming a thicker cord. The tighter you can twist it, the better. If you’re starting with really thin twine you can repeat this process until your wick is thick enough.oil lamp wick

Holding it together

Now you have to find a way to hold the wick in place. If you’re using a metal tin with a lid, there’s an easy solution – just punch a hole in the lid, with a diameter slightly smaller than the wick. Then wrap one end of the wick in tape to stop it snagging and feed it through the hole from the bottom. Next remove the tape and pull the wick back until about a quarter inch is projecting through the lid. You don’t want any more than this, or it will burn oil too quickly and produce a smoky flame. The wick itself is likely to burn, too.

If you’re using a bowl or jar, make a wick stand out of wire. It’s best to use stainless steel wire for this, and it doesn’t have to be very thick – just enough to support its own weight and that of the wick. You can also use galvanized wire, but take the zinc coating off with sandpaper first – if heated, it can release toxic fumes. Copper works too, but needs regular cleaning. The green oxide coating it forms can also release toxic fumes.

Related: How To Preserve Beef in Glass Jars

To make the stand, start with a thick nail and wind one end of the wire wound it to form a coil. You only need half a dozen turns. Now bend the wire so it’s in line with the coil and leave a straight length, just long enough to hold the coil about a quarter inch above where the surface of the oil will be. Finally, bend the rest of the wire into a circular base so it will stand upright. Now feed the wick through the coil so a quarter inch is poking out; stand the holder upright in the bowl or jar, and you’re done.

Whichever type of wick holder you use, make sure the tail of the wick is long enough that a couple of inches are lying on the bottom of the container.

So, now you’ve made your oil lamp. Now all you have to do is fill it with oil. Any kind of vegetable oil will do; olive is best, but the others work fine too. If it’s used cooking oil, strain it to get any crispy bits out, then simply pour it into the container.

Before you use the lamp for the first time let it stand long enough for the oil to soak the whole wick. Then simply light the top of it. If the flame is too smoky, trip the top of the wick slightly until it burns clean; if it’s too small or goes out frequently, push a fraction of an inch more wick through the lid or coil.

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C. Davis
By C. Davis January 25, 2017 13:05
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  1. jan January 25, 14:53

    Just curious…can you fill kerosene lanterns w olive oil? granted they aren’t low and wide, but why not?

    Reply to this comment
    • left coast chuck January 25, 16:16

      The topic of kerosene is more complicated than I first thought. There are several grades of kerosene. There is lamp oil which is petroleum based and burns the cleanest. It give off the fewest BTUs. Lamp oil also gives off the least amount of fumes. It is the oil that one used to see in restaurants in the little lamps that provided atmosphere. The next level up is K-1 which is what is used in kerosene lamps. It also is low odor and gives off more BTUs than lamp oil. It also burns brighter than lamp oil. Next up the scale is stove kerosene. That is used in space heaters. It can be used in kerosene lanterns but gives off more odor and more BTUs. Then there is diesel fuel, either with red dye or without. This is really not suitable for use in lanterns or heaters as it smells so strongly that the odor would probably drive you from the room. It will work and can be used outdoors but you can smell it quite a distance. Finally there is JP which is a mixture of kerosene and, I believe, gasoline and is used in jet engines. Definitely not suitable to lanterns and stoves. Olive oil can be used in a kerosene lantern but will not give off as much light as kerosene and I don’t believe it can be used in kerosene lanterns that use a mantle as it doesn’t give off enough BTUs to vaporize to work in the mantle.I am far from an expert on kerosene but did a little research on it when I purchased my kerosene lanterns. As an aside, I was in Home Depot attempting to purchase kerosene and two clerks I asked didn’t know what it was. I finally located a clerk who knew what kerosene was an directed me to the place in the store where it was not in stock. In SoCal, apparently many stores only carry kerosene during certain times of the year. WallyWorld in the summer time and Home Depot in the winter (they carry stove kerosene) BTUs given off by the various grades of kerosene are important as in the summertime a lamp inside can make it really warm. OTOH in the winter it can help keep the space warm. A Coleman type gasoline lantern can make a space uncomfortably warm in a very short time in the summer.

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    • Jon January 25, 18:41

      I guess you could depending on the design of the lamp, I have maybe 15 different types of veg oil lamps, (and about 15 alcohol lamps) also olive oil does not necessarily burns the best and also sometimes the cheapest vegetable oil works better. But anyways the biggest problem you will have is oil does not travel up the wick like kerosene so you need to keep the oil level pretty high and using a looser wick will work better. Also veg oil lamps dont burn as bright or hot either. you would be amazed a paper clip or piece of metal coat hanger in a small mason jar works well. many types of bowl type olive oil lamps also. you want get really get into making little lamps, check out all the alcohol lamps you can make on google or you tube.

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      • PUNISHER January 25, 21:30


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        • Jon January 25, 21:59

          Lamp oil lamps make nice bright lamps, these are more of a hobby of making things without the use of Petroleum products or just using an alternative fuel. Heck you can put a wick down the center of a can of lard and you have a candle burn for a month straight or more. and yes 2 gallons will make it thru any normal power outage.

          Reply to this comment
      • jan January 26, 00:44

        Thanks, you answered the question and then some.
        Everyone gave good info.

        Reply to this comment
        • Lisa July 7, 00:47

          Silly, I’m sure, but how to feed more twine as it burns?
          I was walking in my neighborhood today & found 3 small canning jars with holes in the lid & twine snaking down in the jars. I didn’t see the 2 tiny air holes you described, but even I can fix that! LOL But, although the jars are clean (no sign of even oil) but the lid is grimmy. How to I crank up the twine as it burns?

          Reply to this comment
  2. akablessed January 25, 15:14

    By the way, there is no such thing as a canola plant. Canola oil is made from a genetically engineered rape seed. Canola stands for Canada Oil Low Acid.

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  3. LampMaker January 25, 17:09

    I prefer to make oil lamps from jars without puncturing the lid. That way the flame is dowsed by putting the lid on (no smoke), and it can be packed with no leakage. Float the wick with a champagne cork cut in half the long way, drill a hole in it, and wrap it with foil. Best wicks are from cotton string mop. 2 or 3 inch wick lasts a long time.

    Reply to this comment
    • left coast chuck January 25, 18:38

      I’ve been experimenting making wicks from the seams of cotton t-shirts without what I would consider great success. Thanks for the tip about cotton sting mop. Next stop, Smart & Final Iris for a replacement mop head. By the way, my experiments also include tuna fish cans, nice and wide so not easy to tip over, cheap and you can make a snuffer out of the lid. By the way, I have found that some vegetable oils are very difficult to light. Haven’t made a complete test yet. I will report on that when I get more reliable info. I think it has to do with the smoke point of the oil. Higher smoke point = harder to light. But, no hard evidence to report yet.

      Reply to this comment
      • Jon January 25, 21:13

        Yes I think on all of mine I make it a habit of drenching entire wick in the veggy oil before I first light it, I have done strips of tee shirts also, used thread to wrap around to keep a little tighter and yes I also bought a couple spare mop heads at the dollar store for a life time of wicks.

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      • Luke January 29, 18:47

        Chuck….Pack lard into the tuna can and you eliminate the spillage problem. Will store in a reasonably cool environment without liquifying or in the bottom of your freezer forever. Couple bucks a pound container and will make 3 or 4 candles each. Burns for about 8 hours per can and will boil water in 20 minutes.

        Reply to this comment
        • Thundering Tatanka May 8, 22:36

          I like the Tuna can idea, but I haven’t found a way to seal them to prevent leakage ; once the lard gets to hot turning to liquid. ( such as storing in your camper, or vehicle’s)

          Reply to this comment
  4. Don January 25, 18:00

    Excellent information Thanks!

    Reply to this comment
  5. J January 26, 01:28

    If you live where the sun shines for recharging, buy some solar lights made for use in yard – $1. on up for different amount of brightness – and store in Farraday Cage. About a year ago, I tried one I bought at WallMart for $1.00. It was still lit at 3 AM. Next day I put it by my sidewalk. It has been working there for about a year. A lot easier to put light in sun to recharge every morning and bring into house by sundown than to bother with and clean oil lights.

    Reply to this comment
    • Jon January 26, 10:59

      J better yet, I bought (2) 10 packs of them , yes them make great emergency lights, BUT just as important those are battery chargers. Just find the ones that use AA not AAA even though those will work and make sure you have a matching couple flashlights. Did you know a microwave is a Faraday cage?

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      • Jon January 26, 11:06

        also those batteries can do many other things like radio, walkie talkie, smoke detector, battery powered clock, little travel razor, the list goes on and actually AA is the same voltage is C or D, you can get adapters to convert AA to C or D, so yes solar yard lights could be a poor mans solar backup system.

        Reply to this comment
    • left coast chuck January 26, 18:31

      @J: Excellent comment. I plan on using the solar yard lights I have. HOWEVER, all batteries, rechargeable or not, have a finite life. Is it three years, five, seven? Who knows, but at some point the batteries will no longer take a charge. If we are truly talking about an EMP situation, the lights will be out for most likely, the rest of our lifetime. We need a back-up beyond the life of the nice clean solar lamps. Olive trees grow quite nicely here in SoCal. In fact, designer olive oil is the next big yuppy thing here in the Peepuls Republik. While we probably wouldn’t want to burn up olive oil that is $50 a gallon, home pressed olive oil from your tree or your neighbor’s who didn’t make it home from his 75 mile daily commute, will make adequate lamp oil for the year 2030 when all the solar batteries have become slingshot fodder. Thus my felt need to experiment with alternatives. Will the seams from cotton clothing work as wicks in an oil lamp? I haven’t answered that question to my satisfaction yet. Will avocado oil work? How about citrus oil? We have lots of those here in SoCal, assuming I
      can’t get out of here and have to shelter in place. My emphasis on survival mode is basic 17th century technology, perhaps even earlier, buttressed with the knowledge of what can be. Think Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

      Reply to this comment
  6. Ani January 26, 01:49

    Hi, I was wondering if you used a can or low more shallow dish, if you could coil a pipe cleaner, like a snake and set it in the small container, use it like a wick?

    Reply to this comment
    • left coast chuck January 26, 18:33

      Sometime this week I am going to try the mop head wick in a tuna fish can. I bought a 100% cotton mop head for $1.49 yesterday at Smart & Final, so we shall see how that works out. I will post the details as soon as I have finished the experiment.

      Reply to this comment
  7. Huguette January 26, 03:43

    I learn a few thing with your comment……Love this…thank You …
    Excellent information Thanks!

    Reply to this comment
  8. Jon January 26, 20:02

    If you really are into emergency lamps and back up lamps and stoves you might want to look at the alcohol stoves and lamps, There normally made into a stove, but you can make your own candles with them also, while denatured alcohol works great, Isopropyl Alcohol, paint thinner, grain alcohol, ISO-Heet, among others in a pinch. Again this is all in a pinch, fun to make, or there is plenty to buy out there, but just gives other options. Again, just another emergency use item

    Reply to this comment
  9. LampMaker January 26, 20:22

    Another thing the cotton string mop is good for is making char cloth for catching a spark from carbon steel (like the back of a rusty knife) knocked off with sharp flint. To get from ember to fire, I like using a “tinder can” as detailed toward end of this article on making can-stoves:

    Reply to this comment
    • Jon January 27, 10:53

      Its been 10 or 15 years since I was doing all this stuff, but you got me thinking, I used to use dryer lint and petroleum jelly, works great for a firestarter, cotton balls work also, I imagine pieces of cotton string mop will do also. but I still keep a small jar of the petroleum jelly and a bag of cotton balls in the truck, I have a very old metal cooler that I put a bunch of stuff in there and keep in my trunk along with a few cans of meat, water filter, old pair of tennis shoes, a few granola bars, gallon of water in a better container, base layer clothing, knife and stuff like that. but cotton and petroleum jelly make GREAT firestarters, lint works the best, both can be used with a striker.

      Reply to this comment
      • jan January 27, 15:55

        Hopefuuly your lint has no people or animal hair. Nothing smell worse than burnt hair! which is why I dont use my dryer lint.

        Reply to this comment
        • Jon January 27, 17:22

          Hi Jan, well its covered with the petroleum jelly being used to light small twigs and branches to make a fire to eat or to get the cold off me in what might be in an emergency situation. I will force myself to bear with it.

          Reply to this comment
        • Jon January 27, 17:34

          lots of stuff out there, he is one of them just my opinion, but if there was an emergency, I would like as many ways to do something, whether cooking, starting a fire, keeping warm, ways to get food and water, anything. Its good to know Vaseline comes in handy.

          Reply to this comment
  10. Joe January 27, 14:09

    I have used oil lamps before but I do not know where to find the “Ferrell” used in the picture above. Can anyone provide info?

    Reply to this comment
  11. left coast chuck January 27, 23:36

    Okay, time for the results for the tuna fish can oil lamp. I used the lids from the cans to hold the wick. I drilled a 1/4″ hole for the wicks. I originally drilled a smaller hole and it worked, but the 1/4″ was better in my opinion. When you are drilling the lids, be sure to hold them with a pair of vise grips because if the lid spins out of your grasp while drilling it will most likely earn a trip to the E.R.

    I used five different kinds of oil and bought the cheapest bottle I could find of each. The oils were: 100% canola oil; 100% corn oil; vegetable oil which was canola oil and sunflower oil; 100% sunflower oil and the cheapest olive oil I could find on the shelf, no premier grade extra virgin stuff in this test. I bought a replacement mop head and got 88 pieces of 100% cotton fluffy string 28″ long. I was originally going to drill holes in each of the cans and run wire through to hold the lid up but that was too much work. Instead I cut 1″ wide strips of cardboard and wound it around the inside of the can. I found out to my surprise that not all tuna fish cans are the same height. I hadn’t measured them all, just one and it was 1 1/8″ high, so I figures 1″ wide strips of cardboard would do for all. WRONG! Two of the tuna fish cans were 1 1/4″ high. That didn’t present a problem, but MEASURE FIRST. Duh, whodda thunk? I left an open space about two inches in diameter in the middle of the can to hold the mop string. I pulled about 1 inch of the string through the hole and filled the can with the appropriate oil. On first lighting it took two paper patches to light each of the wicks. I suspect that the wick wasn’t as thoroughly soaked with oil as I had thought. They all caught fire and burned with a flame about an inch above the end of the wick. They all smoked about the same, even the olive oil. They threw off a surprising amount of heat. I had a glass chimney that I thought would fit the can but it turned out to just sit on top of the can and so didn’t work. I think for my next experiment I will find a wide mouth glass jar and put the tuna fish can in the jar before lighting it. The plan is that it will protect the flame from breezes and keep it from guttering and, perhaps, not smoking so much. While the smoke was not obnoxious and didn’t cause me to cough or anything like that, significant use of these lamps indoors would darken your walls and anything hanging on the walls eventually. They light a darkened room about as much as a 10 watt night light would. You could read by them if you were close enough and they would certainly light a room enough to avoid stumbling over furniture and such. I wouldn’t want to do brain surgery by the light of these oil lamps and it might even be difficult to remove a small splinter by their light.To sum up: Any of the five oils would work as well. The tuna fish can/lid/mop string combo is about as cheap as one can get. The 88 strings cost me $1.49 plus sales tax or 1.8¢ each. One doesn’t have to worry about breaking the tuna fish can nor damaging the lid. It is low and flat and so makes for safety as it is hard to knock over. One doesn’t have to worry about the can cracking from heat. I didn’t run a test to see how long a tuna can of oil would last. I will do that test another day when I have more time as I expect that it will last several hours. In fact, I will burn all five oils and see if one oil gets better mileage than another. I might even try to heat water or cook a hamburger over the five lamps and see how much useful heat they put out. I know I have satisfied my curosity as to how useful a tuna can oil lamp can be.

    Reply to this comment
    • Jon January 28, 11:20

      Left Coast, you are a dedicated soul! Again, this is a prepper forum, stuff for emergency easy use items you can have around the house. I found having a tub of Lard, or Crisco oil around in the supplies is handy because you can take a glob out warm it up on low in microwave or stove (or fire) till it melts and turns into liquid, then pour into small jars 4 to 8 oz or even baby food jars, tie a wick to a small weight, like nut or something and center it and keep positioned in center, I found these work best with a thinner type round wicks. A tub of Crisco can make a lot of candles and its something you could have in the pantry, While olive oil might take a more less dense wicks, the Crisco type oil is better with more dense rope like wicks. I have found Costco to be the cheapest for 5 gallons oils.

      Reply to this comment
  12. Lori February 10, 00:49

    Save the fat that melts off chops, roasts or other fatty meat you’ve cooked for a meal. The fat costs you nothing above what you’ve already outlaid. Use it in other cooking or spread on bread with salt and pepper (yum! That was our treat when I was a kid. And the nutritionists are now saying these low fat diets are NOT healthy – we need fat) Any spare fat can be poured into empty cans and used for lamps.

    Reply to this comment
    • left coast chuck February 10, 00:58

      If you read Frank McCourt’s book “Angela’s Ashes” even after WWII, the typical meal for poor Irish folk was bread soaked in bacon fat with sweetened tea. That diet was one of the reasons for his poor eyesight in later years. While it provides carbs, fat and some protein, it is certainly lacking in the vitamins that we need to maintain health. Personally, I like nothing better after broiling a steak than sopping up the juices and fat with bread and eating it. By the way, haven’t done the longevity burn yet. I want to do it outdoors and we have had a rainy spell here in SoCal.

      Reply to this comment
  13. Gumby February 12, 07:19

    I use regular candle wicking with a zinc wire core. I put them in wick tabs that are used for making votive candles. These are available at most craft stores. You can use votive glasses, tealight cups, short cans, etc. I cut the wicking about 2 inches long and add about 1 1/2 inches of oil to the glass or can. These burn for about 4 hours.

    Reply to this comment
  14. left coast chuck March 15, 19:07

    Final report on the tuna fish lamp experiment. Yesterday I filled the tuna can which is a 7 oz net weight can with vegetable oil. If you refer to my earlier report, you will see that vegetable oil is canola oil and sunflower oil. I placed the tuna can in a 7.2 inch standard clay pot. 7.2 inches??? Oh, well. Putting the can in the clay pot was to eliminate guttering. It didn’t. I lit the candle at 10:00 a.m. At 10:00 p.m. it was still burning although the wick has burned down to the tuna can lid. Had I checked earlier and pulled the wick up, it would have, perhaps, burned out of oil earlier. As it was there was no oil left in the tuna can although the wick was still soaked with oil. So, ladies and gentlemen you can expect about 12 hours of light from the 7 oz tuna can full of vegetable oil. The flower pot did not prevent guttering. It was a little breezy on my patio. Perhaps a narrower jar would reduce guttering. The reason that seems important is that when the flame wavers in the breeze, it smokes more than when the flame is still. The edges of the flower pot were smudged with soot but not too badly. The oil lamp would definitely smudge up your walls and curtains in a while and the inside of your house would smell smokey. That’s why the experiment was carried out on the patio. My wife puts a limit on my experiments. If the walls got smudged, you can guess who would be tasked with cleaning them. This ends my tuna can lamp experiment. In my view, it is cheaper than using Mason jars. Why ruin perfectly good jars by drilling holes in the lids when you can use what basically is trash for the same purpose? It throws as much light as the Mason jar lamp and is less susceptible to being knocked over. One of the advantages of vegetable oil is that it is not as flammable as lamp oil or kerosene.

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  15. ITCS July 14, 16:27

    When kerosene burns it gives off two byproducts other than light. These are heat – lots of heat – and a steady stream of soot. In the 1800s, more urban hose fires were caused by kerosene lamps than any other cause. Also, it makes your home smell like great grandma’s cigarette lighter.
    Check out “kerosene substitute” on Google and you will find “Klean Heat.” It’s not as cheap as 1-K and it’s only available in the winter, but it partially mitigates the problem with the smell and the soot.

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  16. Bill October 29, 17:53

    I believe adding a bit of salt to the oil will reduce smoking by oil lamps. Got this from a documentary on ancient Egypt. Anyway, worth a try.

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  17. RcGyver September 9, 02:18

    eliminate sharp edges on tuna cans by using the side cutting can openers. they cut around the top ring of the can and allows you to reseal the can (sort of)

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